Now I only have one bodyguard

Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk received death threats when he spoke up for Turkey’s religious minorities. On a visit to London, he explains why he won’t be silenced

Despite the wide applause for Pope Francis’s political stand on refugees and poverty in America, there has been a chorus of conservatives saying that he should stick to theology. So it was reassuring for me and other admirers of this Pope to hear a positive response to a question about him.

“Yes. I like Pope Francis,” said the 63-year-old Turkish author and Nobel Prize-winner, Orhan Pamuk, when I asked him what he thought about the Argentine-born Pontiff. “I like what he says about refugees.”

Pamuk was talking to me in the back of a car going to a dinner at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival, where he spoke about his new novel, A Strangeness in My Mind, and his answer heartened me for another reason.

Knowing that Pamuk had previously made sympathetic statements about Armenian Christians in Turkey, at the end of his talk in the conservatory at Blenheim Palace I had put up my hand. As he had championed Christians in Turkey, I asked, what did he think of their present situation? He quickly refuted this, saying: “No, I don’t champion Christians. I’m interested in the subject of the protection of all minorities, whatever their religion.”

Then, as fitting for the man who has written much about “the clash and interlacing of cultures”, he spoke about other minorities in Turkey, the Shia and the Alevis. Careful not to get drawn into any political arguments, he repeated a remark he made the previous night to a London audience: “I now only have one bodyguard. I used to have three.”

Security became a problem back in 2005 when he had responded to a question about freedom of expression in Turkey, saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.”

This remark, published in a Swiss newspaper, resulted in death threats against Pamuk, and an Istanbul state prosecutor accusing him of the crime of “public denigration of Turkish identity.” Pamuk was forced to flee the country. The following year the charges were dropped and he returned to his home looking over the Bosphorus, the Old City, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Here, apart from the four months each year when he teaches at Columbia University in New York, he writes for 10 hours a day.

Later, over pre-dinner drinks, Pamuk spoke on a subject that inspires his writing: the tension between East/West traditions, as evidenced by the multinational, cosmopolitan population of his beloved Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century, which has grown into a city of 15 million people. “It was then a city of only a million people and only half the population was of Turkish descent,” Pamuk said. “There were Jews, Greek Orthodox, Armenians and other Christians. Now Christians make up less than one per cent.”

The expansion of the city, along with the demographic upheaval, is a theme in his new novel, which portrays the life of an Anatolian yoghurt and boza seller in Istanbul.

As in Pamuk’s other novels, threads running through it draw attention to the effects of modernisation and secularism in the contemporary world. Among the depressing news coming from the Middle East about Christians, there was a small triumph for Arab Christians in Israel.

For the past month the country’s 47 Christian schools, along with their 33,000 pupils and teachers, have been striking due to what they called discriminatory and crippling government budget cuts. On Sunday, the government yielded. The strike not only achieved funding and concessions for the schools but fame for the achievements of the schools.

As the strike was widely covered by the international media, the whole world now knows that the Christian schools, the majority of which are Catholic, achieve the best grades in the whole of Israel.

Pupils outperform their counterparts in the Jewish and the state schools. Close to 95 per cent attain a matriculation certificate – a rate unmatched by other schools. Christian school graduates outnumbered Jews, Muslims and Druze enrolling in universities in 2012 by 10 per cent.

Among the distinguished ex-pupils of the Catholic schools in Nazareth and Haifa are professors, physicians, engineers, judges, lawyers and doctors.

One of the best known is Johny Srouji, the most senior Israeli in the global high-tech industry who is now a vice president of Hardware Technologies in Apple in the United States. The high standards are amazing when you remember that the Christian Arab community in Israel, which numbers just 120,000 people, is a minority within the wider Arab minority, among a total population of some 8,400,000.

They have achieved this excellence in a country where the majority are Jewish, in a nation and culture renowned for their intellectual achievements. Now, because of the strike, the world knows that the Arab Christians have created the equivalent of the Eton of the East.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (2/10/15)